Theft is a chronic problem: of food, supplies, electricity (spider webs of wires parasite power lines in some of the camp’s “neighborhoods”), and even caravans. “They take steel fence posts, and put wheels on them, and then move the caravans,” Kleinschmidt says. “We actually had a police station stolen – 8 caravans. They simply disappeared when one team of police had left and another had not yet arrived. Nowhere else have I have seen such things.”
Jordan is now hosting an estimated 560,000 Syrian refugees. Those in the refugee camps drain scarce resources -- water and energy in particular. Those who have slipped into Jordan’s cities compete for jobs and housing, and may engage in crime or pose security risks.
Jordan’s total population is only about 6.4 million, which means that if Zaatari were a city, it would be the country’s fifth largest. In fact, it is increasingly taking on urban characteristics. There are now streets lined with stalls offering everything from rotisserie chicken to ice cream to clothes to home appliances. Kleinschmidt tells me one can also find brothels and gambling dens.
Yet Kleinschmidt does not seem overwhelmed. On the contrary, he is remarkably cheerful and justifiably proud of the job he’s doing: establishing an oasis in the desert -- a troubled oasis, to be sure, but one in which lives are being saved.
If the refugees can’t return to Syria anytime soon, Kleinschmidt will do what he can to improve their lives here. For one, he wants them all to live in caravans -- which have windows, floors and doors that lock -- rather than tents. For another, he wants to license what is now unregulated commerce and prevent criminal gangs from “taxing” the merchants. He wants to give residents some responsibility for governing themselves and securing their “neighborhoods.” More of them also need to work, he says, and to use the money they earn to pay for the services they receive, so they don’t become dependent and idle, a combination that, he understands, breeds trouble.
None of this comes cheap, and the wealthy Arab oil-exporting states of the region are not digging deeply into their pockets. Nor are Americans and Europeans feeling enthusiastically philanthropic these days. The UN has issued a $5 billion emergency appeal, the largest in its history.
It’s anyone’s guess when the fighting in Syria will end. President Obama has now promised to send arms to the rebels. No one is confident such assistance will be sufficient to alter the trajectory of the conflict. And if Assad -- with robust Iranian, Hezbollah and Russian support -- should emerge victorious, he may not welcome the refugees back with open arms. Jordan is not the only neighbor of Syria hosting refugees: There are at least a million more in Lebanon and Turkey. The river is still rising. It’s likely that the situation will get worse before it gets better. It’s not unlikely that it will get worse before it gets worse.